Of all the great Broadway musicals to have opened between Oklahoma! in 1943 and Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, the bookends of the genre’s golden age, the one best known to contemporary audiences is probably West Side Story. Because of the success of the 1961 screen version, which won 10 Oscars, most Americans are at least generally familiar with the 1957 show in which director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, librettist Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turned Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a bloody tale of love, hate, bigotry, and death on the mean streets of Manhattan. Not only does the film, which makes (fairly) faithful use of Robbins’s vaultingly vital street-kid choreography and Bernstein’s tuneful score, continue to be telecast, but the original stage musical has been revived three times on Broadway and is regularly produced throughout the U.S. and around the world.
Yet West Side Story is in certain crucial ways uncharacteristic of the theatrical genre to which it belongs. It is, to begin with, a tragedy rather than a comedy, ending with three of the four principal male characters having died violently in full view of the audience. While Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I also contained violent deaths, they were sited in the larger context of the untragic idealism that is a defining feature of the formula for successful Broadway musicals that was developed and perfected by Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the books and lyrics for the four aforementioned shows.1 But West Side Story, in which the mutual hatred of the Jets and Sharks is a portrait in miniature of the larger racial tensions of America in the ’50s, is different, and was promptly recognized as such. When Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court justice, saw the show, he allegedly told Bernstein that “the history of America is now changed.”
No less unusual are the music and choreography. Robbins claimed that he and his collaborators had sought
to see if all of us—Lenny who wrote “long-hair” music, Arthur who wrote serious plays, myself who did serious ballets, Oliver Smith [the set designer] who was a serious painter—could bring our acts together and do a work on the popular stage.
Yet none of them felt any need to dilute their distinctive styles to make West Side Story more accessible to ordinary viewers. In particular, Bernstein’s dynamic score incorporates the jagged rhythms and dissonant harmonies of the modern classical music he was writing for the concert hall, just as Robbins’s choreography fuses the familiar steps of urban social dance with the more complex movement vocabulary of the neoclassical ballets he had been making since 1944 for American Ballet Theatre and, later, the New York City Ballet.
Nor did they need to do so: West Side Story was a hit, running for 732 performances before being filmed, and six of its songs—“I Feel Pretty,” “Maria,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Something’s Coming,” “Somewhere,” and “Tonight”—had by then become standards. Its success was a tribute to the discernment of the show’s earliest audiences, who had been prepared by then to appreciate a “serious” musical by the structural innovations and heightened emotional intensity of the shows that Hammerstein had previously written with Richard Rodgers.
On the other hand, the present-day popularity of West Side Story can also be explained by one of its less widely remarked features: The show’s principal characters are all teenagers. Hence it is ideally suited for performance by high-school and college students, who identified with the adolescent angst of Tony and Maria long before Dear Evan Hansen taught savvy producers that their solipsistic suffering could lure teenagers to Broadway. And with the release next December of Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, a new generation of youngsters may respond at least as warmly to the plight of the Jets and the Sharks.
But will they? In an op-ed published earlier this year in the New York Times, Carina del Valle Schorske, a Puerto Rican writer and translator, dismissed West Side Story as a “narrative ghetto,” a no-longer-tolerable manifestation of “America’s colonizing power to determine who Puerto Ricans get to be.” The hortatory title of her angry piece left no doubt as to the only outcome that Schorske and her fellow progressives would regard as acceptable: “Let West Side Story and Its Stereotypes Die.”
One may take leave to doubt that they will do so any time soon, but it is certainly likely that some schools whose drama programs cannot fully cast the Sharks without resorting to the use of white performers (as was the case with both the original stage production and the film) will choose not to stage West Side Story at all instead of fending off the protests of “woke” students and their fellow travelers.
Moreover, there is a growing belief in theatrical circles that West Side Story is in need of renovation for reasons other than its politics, starting with the over-familarity of Robbins’s choreography. Of the six revivals that I have reviewed since 2006, five either reproduced his steps literally or were “newly” choreographed in a manner on which his example had left the clearest of marks. In addition, many of his dances were reused in Jerome Robbins’s Broadway, the 1989 revue of his musical-comedy work, and entered the repertory of the New York City Ballet six years later as a freestanding piece called West Side Story Suite. Add to this the revised versions prepared by Robbins for the 1961 film and you will likely come away inclined to feel that for all its self-evident artistic excellence, West Side Story is past due for judicious refurbishing.2
Enter Ivo van Hove, the Belgian stage director who is Broadway’s trendiest director of big-budget revivals. His postmodern stagings of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and The Crucible received near-universal critical praise, as did his 2018 mounting of Lee Hall’s stage version of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, van Hove’s most prominent fan, has called his work “illuminatingly unorthodox,” adding, “This must be what Greek tragedy once felt like, when people went to the theater in search of catharsis.”
Van Hove’s approach to West Side Story, which opened in New York in February, is typical of his Broadway work. It is, he says, “a West Side Story for the 21st century,” and like so many European stage productions, it exemplifies the clean-sweep approach of Regietheater. A German word whose literal meaning is “director’s theater,” the neologism refers to the conviction long prevalent in Europe, especially in the world of opera, that the director of a revival is co-equal in creative importance to the actual author. In addition to being completely conceptualized, Regietheater-style revivals do not seek to illuminate the intended meaning of a show. Instead, their directors feel free not merely to change the settings of the shows they stage but to cut and rewrite the texts in order to bring them into closer accord with their own interpretations.
For van Hove, West Side Story is primarily a political statement, and so every element of the show that contradicts this interpretation has been jettisoned. (As a result, his production runs for an hour and 45 minutes, an hour shorter than the 2009 Broadway revival directed by its own librettist, Arthur Laurents.) As well as dropping “I Feel Pretty,” one of the show’s best-loved songs, he has also cut its most ambitious dance number, an extended second-act dream ballet set to the song “Somewhere” in which Tony and Maria envision the Jets and Sharks reconciling in a never-never land of mutual trust and respect.
Robbins would never have sanctioned this cut, for the ballet is the show’s dramatic pivot point, the moment when the tragic meaning of West Side Story—that love is capable of vanquishing hatred but is not always powerful enough to do so—is given its most complete expression. But, then, all of Robbins’s choreography, not just the “Somewhere” ballet, has been replaced by new dances made by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a Dutch choreographer with no experience in staging musical comedy. The fundamental problem with her work here is not that it’s new but that it’s tedious and unmusical. (I came away feeling as though the chorus had spent the evening walking.) It is not enough simply to get rid of Robbins’s dances: You must replace them with something at least as compelling, and De Keersmaeker comes nowhere near doing so.
As for van Hove’s staging, it is, like the rest of his Broadway work, an assemblage of navel-gazing minimalist tricks slathered with political sauce. Foremost among them is the absence of a set: His West Side Story is performed on a huge open stage. Instead, the upstage wall of the 1,761-seat Broadway Theatre has been replaced with a proscenium-sized screen on which are alternately projected scenes of the streets of New York and live-TV pictures of the cast in motion. These latter images dwarf the real-life cast members and make it difficult to look at the performers for more than a few seconds at a time. Instead, the viewer’s eye is irresistibly drawn to the screen. In addition, the video is embarrassingly “on the nose,” never more so than in “Gee, Officer Krupke.” One of the most brilliantly and bitterly thought-provoking musical-comedy numbers ever written, “Krupke” is reimagined here as a didactic police-brutality bit with clunkily obvious video clips of white policemen beating up black suspects. It is no small feat to stage “Krupke” in such a way that it gets not a single laugh, but that is what happens here.
As this example shows, van Hove and De Keersmaeker have denuded West Side Story of the humor, romanticism, and sexiness that help to give point to the grim funeral procession that is the show’s harrowing last scene. The original West Side Story starts in one place, dramatically speaking, and ends in another, whereas van Hove’s dour version goes nowhere at all. It is hard to convey in words how wrong-headed the results are: One must see them in the theater to fully appreciate their relentless banality.
But while most of the reviews of van Hove’s revival were positive, others pointed to a turning of the critical tide against van Hove’s approach. Ben Brantley, for instance, unexpectedly attacked him for smothering West Side Story in gratuitous video effects, with results that he described as “curiously unaffecting,” saying, “There are a lot of split screens and a lot of frankly clichéd, commercial-style images of characters running and brooding.” Even more telling was Alexandra Schwartz’s New Yorker review: “The production is an infuriating example of what happens when a powerful style calcifies into shtick.…He wants to make us see an iconic work with new eyes, but all we can see is him.” Such quips are the shoals on which reputations run aground and sink.
Whatever the merits of van Hove’s production, the question remains: What is West Side Story really about? Is it a tale of ’50s gang warfare viewed through the distorting prism of white privilege? Or, as van Hove seems to believe, is it better understood as an extended theatrical metaphor for American racism of all kinds? And might its symbolism be sufficiently open to justify other, even more radical interpretations?
It is too rarely noted that West Side Story was the work of a creative team consisting mainly of white men who were both Jewish and homosexual.3 In our identity-obsessed culture, we take it for granted that these are relevant considerations in any properly informed discussion of the show. But even the Jewishness of Bernstein, Laurents, Robbins, and Sondheim went almost entirely unmentioned in 1957, despite the fact that the Montagues and Capulets were Catholics and Jews in the earliest drafts of the book. Only later in the show’s gestation did the opposing gangs evolve into the Jets, a mixed group of Polish-, Irish- and Italian-American teenagers, and the Sharks, a band of Puerto Rican émigrés.
That West Side Story started life as a story of anti-Semitism is far from surprising. Most of Broadway’s silver- and golden-age musicals were written in whole or part by first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants who might reasonably have been expected to take a bleak view of American life. Instead, they embraced the natural optimism of their newfound land, an attitude now generally interpreted as a purposeful act of self-assimilation—and never more so than in the case of Oscar Hammerstein, a highly assimilated Jew who was also the single most influential figure in the development of the postwar musical.
As for the sexuality of the chief makers of West Side Story, it was undiscussable in 1957 and for decades afterward. Not only were all four men public figures, but Bernstein was married with children, while Robbins and Sondheim had been and would continue to become involved with women at various times in their lives (Robbins even announced his engagement to the dancer Nora Kaye in 1951). Still, those who knew them best agreed, then as now, that they were primarily homosexual, a concurrence exceptional to the point of singularity for the creative teams of golden-age Broadway musicals, the vast majority of which were the work of mixed groups of straight and gay artists.
All this notwithstanding, none of the creators of West Side Story seems ever to have suggested that the show might have a gay subtext. Indeed, Laurents, who was never shy in later life about discussing his sexuality in public and considered himself a political activist, said more than once that its underlying sensibility was Jewish, making no mention of homosexuality. The closest that he came to hinting that there might have been more to it than that was when he observed that West Side Story is about “the idea that love is destroyed in a world of violence, and prejudice breeds violence.”
Yet it is still widely felt, especially by gay men of a certain age, that West Side Story is at least as much “about” homosexuals as Jews or Puerto Ricans. In particular, “Somewhere,” whose offstage performer sings of an imaginary “place for us” where “we’ll find a new way of living…a way of forgiving,” has come to be regarded as an unofficial anthem of gay liberation, and the song is accordingly sung by gay men’s choruses all over the world. Moreover, it is easy to imagine a gender-swapped revival of West Side Story in which Tony becomes “Toni,” thereby making his illicit love for Maria even more transgressive of the conservative mores of 1957, in much the same way that Bobby, the sexually ambiguous central character of Sondheim’s Company, is currently being played by a woman, Katrina Lenk, in that pioneering musical’s new Broadway revival.
Such, at any rate, is one of the myriad possibilities awaiting the directors of future revivals of West Side Story, though it is at least as likely that they will opt instead to play the show “straight.” For one need not purge West Side Story of political incorrectness, much less quarry it for hitherto unsuspected subtexts, to be thrilled anew by its still-potent mixture of romanticism and anguish. While it is far from perfect—indeed, I find it cloying when performed with anything less than iron conviction—it remains a masterpiece of its kind, a musical that, as its creators hoped, coaxed the best out of them all. And if West Side Story is, as I now believe, a show for young people, it also has the power to remind viewers long past their youth of what its songs and dances meant to us in the days when we, too, were full of dreams.
1 See my “Why Musicals Succeed” (COMMENTARY, March 2016) for a discussion of this formula, which West Side Story follows closely in other respects.
2 Spielberg’s film version has been rechoreographed by Justin Peck, a member of the New York City Ballet and that company’s resident choreographer.
3 Oliver Smith was gay but not Jewish, while Jean Rosenthal, the lighting designer, was a lesbian.
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